This may be one of those “be careful what you ask for” moments. But the real value is in speaking up.
As Northwestern University football players filed into a McGaw Hall classroom early one recent morning, they weren’t studying history. Instead, they were making it.
Armed with a National Labor Relations Board Order backing their right to organize, players were voting on whether to form the nation’s first college athletics union.
“We’re one step closer to a world where college athletes are not stuck with sports-related medical bills, do not lose their scholarships when they are injured, are not subject to unnecessary brain trauma and are given better opportunities to complete their degree,” former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter
told ESPN. Colter helped lead
the effort with the help of the United Steelworkers.
One step closer to a union, perhaps, but the move is also one step closer to destroying the amateur status of college athletics.
Whether that is a good or bad thing is very much in debate. Players themselves appear divided, with heavy lobbying by both sides.
Colter and other players
behind the movement argue it is a way to finally give athletes
economic recognition for their contribution to a multimillion-
dollar college sports industry. While figures for Northwestern are not public, Indiana and Purdue both generate more than $70 million a year in revenue. The University of Texas tops $163 million.
Athletes have a legitimate beef with how that money is spent — or not spent. As Colter suggested, the long-term health of student-athletes is overlooked or ignored. Programs are not required to follow through with treatment after a student leaves the school, nor are scholarships guaranteed for those no longer able to perform.
A union to advocate for these “workers” seems absurd at one level, but not upon a closer look.
The Chicago regional director of the NLRB ruled in March that the football players are university employees who often work at their sport 50 to 60 hours a week and, therefore, they can vote on whether to join a union. But the full NLRB in Washington has agreed to review that ruling and hear Northwestern’s appeal, a process that could take months. In the meantime, the NLRB has impounded the ballots.
Whatever the outcome — and a “no” vote appears more likely at this point based upon player comments — the path toward more equitable treatment of student-athletes is a likely result.
Already, Northwestern officials are striking a conciliatory tone.
“We are truly serious about continuing the conversation,” university spokesman Alan Cubbage said. “Regardless of what happened today on the vote, our intention is that — or our hope certainly is — that Northwestern is going to be a leader in discussing those issues that have come to the forefront.”
The university already offers four-year scholarships (e.g., not subject to withdrawal after one season as is done at many other schools) and covers medical treatment for one year after a student leaves.
A union also introduces other significant obstacles, including the prospect that student-athletes may be taxed on the value of their scholarship and other benefits (since they would be primarily employees, not students).
Already, the NCAA, while underlining the steps it has taken to bring equity to the process, is moving forward more rapidly. More “revenue-sharing,” however defined, is going to happen.
As well, other lawsuits by current and former athletes will continue to chip away at NCAA jurisdiction and bank accounts. College athletics are big business, and antiquated methods of governance will not withstand legal challenge.
A union, though, is likely not the best way to resolve these matters. Even if student-athletes have that right, it is one best left unused. There are simply too many messy issues and too many unknowns, including taxes, immigration status and other matters.
As members of the Northwestern football team voted on whether to form a bargaining group, their goal was clear. A union is not the best means to achieve it though.
Be careful what you ask for. Sometimes the best choice is the one you don’t make.
Bob Johnson is a correspondent for the Daily Journal. His columns appear Tuesdays and Fridays. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.